As I walked over the railway bridge in a Middle Eastern city, I glanced at the walls, where advertisements for local shops had been plastered. Over the posters, in crude writing, was painted “Udhkur Allah” (remember / be mindful of God). Driving along desert highways, we would sometimes encounter the same exhortation, lettered in a roadway sign: and it was commonly embossed in mosque decorations.
The reminder to pause and remember God is a welcome one. In this context, it is linked with dhikr, the activity of reciting the name of God, or his characteristics, in order to focus more fully on who He is. What does dhikr look like? This was one dhikr session that I attended.
Women are sitting in silent concentration. It is quiet, just the sound of lips moving with the beads, and someone’s periodic murmur. A few of the women are rocking their bodies a little as they sit, some are passing prayer beads through their fingers. There is a little movement as women adjust their position. The outside noises of cars, voices, come in from the road. Inside the women are quiet, still, concentrating. The girl beside me is weeping softly, as she continues to pass the prayer beads through her fingers. A low voice begins to recite something, and others join in quietly for a little while. Then there is silence again, with only the muted sound of voices whispering to themselves, lips moving. A woman in the front row begins to sing quietly, a song of worship. A‛ariftak ya rabb bi-qalbi wa-fikri (I knew you, O Lord, in my heart and my thoughts.) She sings this a few times, and some other phrases. Others women sit quietly, some moving their lips, or rocking their bodies slightly.
Dhikr can be quiet sessions like this: in other places it can involve greater noise and activity, people standing, swaying more violently, or walking around in a circle. Prayer beads are characteristic, used to count the number of recitations. Other ways of counting (usually in multiples of eleven) include mechanical counters, or counting off on finger joints, or using beans. The rhythmic movement, whether swaying, whirling, or quietly passing prayer beads through fingers, helps focus.
Dhikr & Daily Life
For Muslim women, more constrained by the restrictions of purity requirements from activities like salah and fasting, dhikr offers a way to access God and his power for daily life. For some women in the mosque movement, dhikr is an essential part of preparation before lectures, allowing them to put aside the preoccupations of home, family, work, in order to focus and take in the teaching. A mosque teacher told the women in her programme:
“The lesson without the dhikr is about a quarter of its usefulness. The dhikr is the spiritual preparation and gives us concentration, so we don’t miss half the lecture.” And she commented to me on another occasion: “I guard it, I won’t give a lesson unless there’s been dhikr”… “even ten or five minutes, to recollect your heart to God.”
Others say that regular practice of dhikr, including asking God for forgiveness, makes people more aware of themselves and their actions, less likely to sin.
Silence & Song
Dhikr may be verbal, with the tongue (dhikr lisani); or silent,[i] in the heart (dhikr qalbi). Verbal dhikr includes songs, with the lyrics and rhythm often composed by the instructor or one of the women in the programme. Some are extended songs (tarnim) by the leader of the dhikr, sometimes with women joining in the chorus. These are times when leaders can show their skill in singing, and the songs may be characterized by more extended passages and less repetition.[ii] Another form of songs (anashid) is a lively chant led by a group, accompanied by a drum, usually on days of special remembrance or feasts. For both, alliteration, rhythm and rhyme are important. Women’s voices may be considered awrah (shameful) and forbidden in some contexts; however in dhikr women’s talent in singing is taken up and honoured.
Heresy or Islamic?
Dhikr and the use of prayer beads are opposed by some Muslims as an innovation, and therefore heretical.[iii] But those who practise dhikr point back to Muhammad meditating in a cave, and to Qu’ranic verses.[iv] The most quoted verse is Al-Baqarah 2:152 “So remember Me, I will remember you” (fa-adhkuruni ‘adhkurkum). The teacher of a women’s mosque programme declared: “Dhikr is necessary … it is said udhkuru Allah dhikran kathiran (Remember Allah with much remembrance). For salah (formal prayer) is five times, hajj (pilgrimage) once in a lifetime, fasting once a year, only dhikr is frequent, so dhikr is very important in our lives.”
Remembering God With Us
Any western bookshop today is full of books on mindfulness. The phrase udhkur Allah (be mindful of God) reminds us of the importance of continual mindfulness that is focused on our Creator. Whether we are silent or speaking or singing aloud, whether still or moving, in every part of life, including our emotions, we are called to be mindful of God, murmuring his Word,[v] aware of His presence.[vi]
While much is written about salah prayer, we need to pay more attention to the place of dhikr in the lives of Muslim women. Dhikr also reminds us of the longing of Muslim women for God who is with us, not just closer than our jugular vein (Qaf 50:16), but who is always accessible, whatever our condition or state of purity or impurity. Through the Messiah and his Spirit, God is immanent among us, both attentive to and mindful of us: the one who became part of everyday life with us – walking, talking, and sharing life with us, that we might more completely share in His life.
[i] Silent dhikr is particularly, although not exclusively, linked with the Naqshabandi order.
[ii] An excerpt from one song includes:
I pray, whispering, praying. I rise in the night before dawn.
I pray, whispering, praying, with tears. Whatever I face in this life,
The small problems – I am busy with you, apart from what my eyes see.
Bitterness becomes sweet if You are satisfied.
Who is for me apart from You? And who apart from You sees and teaches my heart?
All creatures are shadows.
I cry to you, O Lord, I cry to you, O Lord. Forgive my small sins in your generosity.
Make my good thoughts intercessions.
Hearer and Knower of all my situation, Answerer of all questions
Let your favour change my situation
There is no strength but by You. Be gentle and have mercy on my situation.
Forgive my small sins and pardon.
Life is pure if you are satisfied,from every fear of destination.
So take away from me all of life’s crises
O Hearer and Knower of all my situation, O Answerer of all questions.
[iii] One writer comments poignantly that:”Salafis” accuse us of deviation and heresy because we sit and recite dhikr – loud or silently … Some of them object because it is loud and they claim it should be silent; others object because it is silent and they claim it should be loud; others object because it is in a group and it should be individual; others because they claim our emphasis on dhikr is excessive and we should raise funds or study or hold conferences or make jihad instead; others object because some people are affected by the dhikr so as to sway or move this way or that instead of sitting still, so they want everyone to sit absolutely still; others because we sometimes perform dhikr in dim surroundings rather than in a glaring light; others yet object to reciting the name ALLAH by itself and claim it is an innovation, so that we should only say: YA Allah. Finally, they also accuse us of innovation and misguidance because we use dhikr-beads which we carry in our hands. http://sunnah.org/ibadaat/dhikrtable.htm
[iv] Some verses refer to the coming of Gabriel (An-Najm 53:1-18; At -Takwir 81:19-25) and Muhammad’s night journey (Al-Kahf 17:1). Other verses suggest a mystical consciousness of God (Al-Baqarah 2:115, 186; Al-Taubah 9:123; Al-‘Ankabut 29:20; Qaf 50:16), and especially the famous verse of light (Al-Nur 24:35). The word dhikr appears often in the Qur’an (such as Al-Ma’idah 5:91; Al-Jum‛ah 62:9; Al-A’la 87:15, and more particularly Al-Baqarah 2:200; Al-‛imran 3:41; Al-A‛araf 7:205; Al-Muzzammil 72:17).
[v] Psalm 1:2.
[vi] Practicing the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence.
© When Women Speak… January 2018
Moyra Dale spent over two decades in the Middle East (particularly Egypt, Jordan, and Syria) with her family working in education, specializing in Adult Literacy (Arabic) and teacher training. She is an ethnographer whose research has included exploring adult literacy in Egypt and the women’s mosque movement in Syria through women’s accounts and understanding of their own lives and realities. Currently based in Melbourne, Australia, she writes, teaches, trains, and supervises students in Islam and cross-cultural understanding, with a focus on Muslim women. Moyra holds a PhD in Education (La Trobe University) and DTh (Melbourne School of Theology).